Developing a National Message for Civil Legal Services: Analysis of National Survey and Focus Group Research

National survey and focus group research by Belden, Russonello & Stewart (BRS) to develop a message to help build public support for civil legal services for low-income people.

Presentation (NATIONAL)

Project for Future of Equal Justice, National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA), Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP)
May 1, 2000


National survey and focus group research by Belden, Russonello & Stewart (BRS) to develop a national message that can also be used by those working locally and at the state level to help build public support for civil legal services for low-income people. To accomplish this goal, BRS designed a public opinion research plan that explored the public’s awareness, attitudes, and values relating to civil legal aid. The research objectives were to uncover and examine:

1. The associations, both positive and negative, that people have toward legal services;
2. barriers that hold back public support and openings to build greater support;
3. the values that underlie opinions; and,
4. language and message concepts that will help build the case for civil legal help for low-income Americans.

Study Details
The first step of this research consisted of ten focus groups conducted among voters in Baltimore, Birmingham, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago from November 1999 to January 2000. Upon completion of the focus groups, BRS conducted a national opinion survey among 1,200 adults living in the U.S. in telephone-equipped households. Interviewing took place from March 23 to April 9. The margin of sampling error for the study is +/- 2.8 percentage points.

The report contains the analysis of the survey and focus groups and identifies the currents of opinion relevant to building public commitment to legal aid. This analysis forms the basis for BRS to develop specific national messages that local and state legal services directors can use in their communications.

The report is broken-down into three sections: 1) an overview of the research; 2) recommendations for developing a message on legal aid; and 3) detailed findings on the public’s attitudes toward legal services and developing a national message. The appendix contains a complete questionnaire with survey results, the materials used in the focus groups, and a detailed methodology.

1. Support for legal aid

• Close to nine in ten Americans (89%) agree that legal help for civil matters should be provided for low-income people. Over half (55%) of the public strongly agrees with this sentiment.
• Support is still high but drops when the program is described as government funded. Eight in ten Americans (82%) support government-funded legal aid and four in ten (42%) strongly support government-funded legal aid – a drop of thirteen percentage points among those who agree strongly.

• The values that underlie support for legal aid are:

Fairness and equality: ensuring everyone has access to justice;
Responsibility to help others: compassion for those in need; and
Responsibility to the community to solve problems.

2. Potential challenges to increasing and solidifying support

The survey and focus groups uncover a number of attitudes held by Americans that impact support for legal services for the low income. At the moment, few of the criticisms reduce support for the program. Its association as a government program presents the greatest challenge, while problematic attitudes toward lawyers, the legal system, and lawsuits are less widespread but could threaten support for legal services in the future.

Although few of the anti-legal aid attitudes have turned Americans against the program, they are prevalent opinions, and if opponents of legal aid consistently voice these criticisms, they may become more problematic in the future.

• Government funding is a challenge. Strong support for civil legal aid drops thirteen percentage points – from 55% to 42% – when the program is described as government funded. Similarly, a majority of Americans (57%) support substituting volunteer lawyers for government-paid legal aid programs to represent low-income people. However, overall, 82% continue to support legal aid programs, even when they are described as government funded.

• The view that there are too many lawsuits is problematic but less decisive to support for legal services. The public generally supports legal service lawyers going to court, but there are some concerns that this practice may be abused. Four in ten Americans (40%) agree that legal aid offices should just provide advice and not represent clients in court, but a majority (55%) disapproves of this limitation. Also, half of the public (50%) believes that legal aid offices representing people in court leads to more frivolous lawsuits, but 42% reject this claim.
• Lack of recognized need is also less of an issue, although it exists. Americans generally recognize the need for legal services, but their awareness appears superficial. A plurality of 41% of Americans believes the poor would have only a somewhat difficult time getting civil legal help, and a quarter (25%) believes the poor would have an easy time. A third (33%) believes that poor people would have a very difficult time.

The public recognizes that low-income people suffer from unequal treatment by the courts, but here too opinions are soft. A plurality of four in ten Americans (40%) believes the courts treat low-income people somewhat worse than others while less than two in ten (17%) say that low-income people are treated much worse.

3. Describing legal aid to the public

The public supports all types of legal services’ work but some types are more popular than others.

• More than three-quarters of Americans support legal aid’s work, regardless of whether it is described as giving advice, negotiating, or going to court. However, giving advice about rights is the most popular type of work for legal aid offices. Over half the public (52%) strongly favors this work, while somewhat less popular is legal aid representing clients in court (36% strongly favor) and contacting and negotiating with government agencies (30% strongly).

• The clients and specific cases that garner the greatest support relate to child abuse (84% strongly favor legal aid’s work in this area), denial of Medicare benefits (74%), domestic violence (74%), and denial of veterans benefits (71%).

• Messages that resonate best with the public are ones that reflect values and describe the results of legal aid’s work. The most popular message statements express the values of caring for others and fairness. They personalize legal services by focusing on the needs of individuals, their rights, and correcting injustice. Less compelling are general messages and those that focus on societal or collective good.